Credit: Ben Fractenberg

When Marvel Comics calls, people answer. That seems to be a general rule. But local author Jason Reynolds was hesitant when he got his call. Marvel had plans to publish a young adult novel about Spider-Man, specifically Miles Morales, an immensely popular iteration of the character and the first black boy to don the spider suit in the comics. Reynolds was the author the bosses wanted.

That he would be on Marvel’s radar as it identified authors to write about a black Puerto Rican teenager coming of age in Brooklyn comes as no surprise. The Oxon Hill native, who now lives in Northeast D.C., has written nine books and become widely known over the past few years for writing complex young black characters, mostly boys. His book Ghost was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and As Brave As You was a 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book.

“I’ve written a gazillion books about black boys in Brooklyn, so it was kind of like ‘Look dude, this is your wheelhouse, will you take this on?’” Reynolds says.

His initial answer was “I don’t know.” He was afraid the stranglehold of a corporation with huge intellectual properties to protect and monitor would stifle his writing. Then there was the immense pressure he’d feel to properly represent a beloved superhero in his own words. 

Before Miles Morales first appeared in 2011, there had hardly ever been a superhero like him. In the comics, he’s rarely written by people of his skin color or his background. Reynolds liked the character on a base level. Morales and his friends speak colloquial slang and he has a loving family. Spanglish is ever-present in his household. 

Reading one particular Morales comic deeply affected Reynolds. In it, Morales is fighting and his Spider-Man suit gets ripped, revealing his skin. A young woman notices and exclaims surprisedly and happily that Spider-Man is of color. In the next panel, Morales says, “And she cares why?” Then eventually he says, “I don’t want to be the black Spider-Man.

“It felt violent to me,” Reynolds says. “This was an opportunity I think was missed and furthermore, intentionally dodged. It hurt. It was the fear of going there, the fear of saying ‘Hell yeah I’m black, this is awesome.’”

He decided then that he’d write the novel, doing it for people like his 16-year-old little brother and his 43-year-old elder brother, who’s a comic book head. 

“I do it for them, so that they know our stories, even in the supernatural world, even in a comic book world, matter. That the things that affect us don’t not affect us in that world.”

Marvel accepted his pitch for the story, so Reynolds faced the character head-on. The result, 2017’s Miles Morales: Spider-Man, was exceptional. This is a 16-year-old Spider-Man who used to wet the bed, which his father gently teases him about. He watches old sci-fi movies, helps his mother set the table for Sunday dinner, and participates in dunk contests. Reynolds’ Morales is sensitive, friendly, familiar, and infinitely knowable. He is all the things a good Spider-Man should be, but with the face of a young black boy. In that small yet monumental detail, Reynolds found his Miles Morales. He took the character that already existed and made sure that the cultural touches were there, making him whole.

In the book, he tackles the subject of race with nuance, in the form of Miles’ own quiet astonishment that he is in fact a black superhero. He writes, “Miles rolled the mask down over his forehead, over his eyes. For a split second, darkness. Then he lined up the holes so his vision cleared and continued stretching it over his nose, mouth, and chin. He looked at himself in the mirror. Spider-Man.”

Reynolds was conscious to write Miles as a young person who hasn’t yet been taught to trust himself. He knows something is wrong, but the world has told him that the way he feels is unwarranted. We hear that all the time, Reynolds says, when people say millennials are just a bunch of entitled kids.

“What I wanted to show with Miles was confirmation of his own intuition, that he has the ability to intuit and how that has actually nothing to do with his spidey-sense,” he says. “It has everything to do with who he is, where he’s from, how he’s raised, and his environment. Spidey-sense to the black community is [a] survival skill, not a superpower.”

Reynolds also imbued his Spider-Man with a sense of survivor’s guilt and impostor syndrome, feelings present in his own life. He asked himself, “How does Miles deal with being the special one? Why him?” Those sentiments are tangible and continuously plague black communities like the one Reynolds grew up in. One doesn’t need to have superpowers to feel that guilt, just a career or a university degree.

The road to Reynolds getting here has been long and winding. He was 17 years old when he read his first novel cover to cover. He’d always thought his path was poetry, not narrative books, and studied English at the University of Maryland before moving to New York after graduation to pursue his dreams of being a writer. He sold his independently published books of poetry as a teenager and he signed his first book deal when he was just 21. 

Now 34, he never thought he’d be writing prose, traveling the country talking about his books. But the only way for him now is forward. He feels a responsibility to portray black bodies in an honest way, and takes it upon himself to work relentlessly, writing each day to fulfill it. 

His most recent book, Long Way Down, is written entirely in verse, taking him back to his poetic roots. The story centers on Will, a young black boy whose elder brother was recently shot and killed. The entire story takes place during a single suspended minute in Will’s life as he rides in an elevator. It was long-listed for the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and John Legend is currently in talks to produce the book as a film.

The idea was to use every single part of the story to mimic a traumatized brain, he says. In his mind, an elevator—tight, closed, cold, dark, shaky, and literally hanging by a thread—is the physical manifestation of trauma.

Between Will and Miles, he has transformed the art of writing young black masculinity, pain, anger, and emotion. “I think America has a hard time dealing with anger,” he says. “I think America has an even harder time dealing with black anger. As long as the anger is contained, everybody’s OK. Once the anger grows legs, people get really uncomfortable, but it’s human.”

In so many ways, it’s the real people he grew up with in D.C., his friends and family, who show up in his work, fleshing out the characters he creates and giving them the texture and depth rarely seen in other works.

Reynolds’ busy 2017 will be followed by an equally busy 2018. He’s become prolific, putting out around three books each year, but says the work can’t stop for fear that the success could end at any moment. 

His hard work and tenacity is working to great effect. He’s managed to charm just about everyone he meets. On a brisk October night, Reynolds strolls into the basement of Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue NW, to a room packed with children and adults. To him, the children are the best. He writes for them: “Who else is there to write for?”

He’s all tattoos and dreads in a black t-shirt, his signature look. And when he opens his mouth, there’s a palpable authenticity. He speaks his truth and maybe yours, too. 

The seats are all full. Many have resorted to standing in the back, angling their heads awkwardly to see him, holding the books they want him to sign when he finishes speaking. He reads from Long Way Down and has a jovial question-and-answer session with the crowd. After he finishes, people cheer and nearly everyone in the room lines up to have newly purchased books signed. They wait and wait and wait. No one seems to mind.